My Son Speaks in Hymns
Hilary Yancey

Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia. Our triumphant, holy day, alleluia. Who did once upon the cr-oo-ooo-ooo-oo-sssss (alleluia), suffer to redeem our lossssss, aaaaaah-le-luuuuu-iaaaaaaaa!

I sing this verse of this hymn at least ten times a day. It makes my son, who is almost 3, laugh and dance. He always commands that I hold the high note in line three and the last alleluia until he swishes his hands down through the air to signal that it’s time to cut the note off. Then, when the silence rushes in to fill the space where my voice had just been, he laughs and signs “again.”

I have been around hymns my whole life. In the liturgical tradition in which I was raised, and where I am now raising my own children, I mark the seasons better by the sections of the blue 1982 hymnal than the leaves that rarely change color in Waco, Texas. We move from #56 (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) up through #102 (“Once in Royal David’s City”) and the path arcs onward to #207, Jack’s favorite, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” The hymns carve out a path to walk, a way to measure myself against something stable. How many times have I sung these hymns, all the while becoming someone new, someone who—I hope, I pray—looks a bit more like Jesus?

My son has some complex disabilities. That is an easily typed sentence but not one as easily explained. He was born with craniofacial microsomia, a range of conditions affecting the formation of the face and skull. The right side of Jack’s face looks different – he was born with cleft lip and palate (now repaired), missing his right eye and his right external ear. Less obvious, but more important, he is missing a small piece of his jaw bone on that right side. It pulls his mouth into the most beautiful lopsided grin and it means he can’t articulate most consonants, and his noises, though full of meaning for him, are hard to understand. He has some signs, and he has some sensory processing challenges that make learning signs harder.

In lots of ways I don’t have an ordinary language with Jack. We spend a lot of time looking at pictures of objects and animals, we work on naming clothes and trees and leaves. Action words are coming, but more slowly.

Before my son was born I pictured myself surrounded by able-bodied children teaching them complex lessons about Jesus from the time they were infants. I imagined that they would pepper me with questions about him, that they would tell strangers or friends about him, that they would practice prayers by their beds before they fell asleep. In my head these conversations were all in full sentences and familiar images and easy-to-understand speech.

When Jack was born I lost my words, my familiar images. My own speech and prayer felt garbled and impossible for even me to understand.

What brought me back were hymns. What taught me who God could be, who God was, were #56 and #102 and #207. I sang them to Jack in desperation and I sang them to him without believing and I sang them to him with so much believing my throat was clogged with it and the words came out in hiccups.

I have felt the guilt of not praying before meals, and the absence of a warbly three year-old voice at my dinner table. I have wondered what Jack knows about Jesus when his friends or relatives can tell me quite a lot about characters in the Bible and what they did and said and what they were like. Jack looks constantly at one page in the Jesus Storybook Bible, the one with the angel announcing to the women that “He is not here, he is risen, just as he said,” and while I know it can sound like I’m writing this to tell you a cute story about how my son is so great despite his disabilities really what I mean is my God, my son knows Jesus. My God, he knows him so much better than I do.

What I am saying is that we should never underestimate the worth of singing hymns or looking at a single picture. When Jack turned three, I wasn’t sure whether he would be able to go to Sunday School. I knew it would be distracting and unhelpful for me to be there—though I am his mother, I’m learning that there are times and places where my stepping aside is better—but I knew he needed one on one help to participate. He needed someone to walk alongside him, learning his unique language, helping him sing and navigate the space. When someone stepped forward to do this for my son, I was speechless.

All of the Sunday School teachers tell me it is good for him to be there. The person that walks alongside him week by week tells me his joy is full and growing. It isn’t just that my son knows Jesus so much better than me, it is that I underestimate how other people can be the hands and feet of Jesus to us. Jack’s helper is that to Jack; and Jack is that to her, to his classmates.  

And if it is true that Jesus plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and eyes not his, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, then our churches must widen to welcome those whose bodies, whose minds, whose spirits, bring forth new and different dimensions of that Face. My son needs something different in Sunday School, yes, but more than just needs, he deserves a space where he is met and embraced and taught.

Church can be one of the least inclusive spaces for disabled people, and maybe especially disabled children. I’m reminded here, though, of how often and carefully Jesus stopped what he was doing to engage people with different kinds of bodies in the midst of his ministry. The woman suffering from hemorrhages in Luke 8 thinks she will just clutch a thread or two. But Jesus stops, and looks for her, looks to hear her story. When the blind man outside Jericho calls out to the Son of David for mercy, and the crowd attempts to hush him or ignore him, Jesus does not. Jesus invites him to dialogue, to have conversation, to tell the story. We perhaps are tempted to think that Jesus’s healing activities show that disabilities are intrinsically bad or unfortunate. But I think the real message here is that persons with disabilities have real, rich stories to tell – about their lives, their embodiment, their needs, their gifts. Such stories ask us to do something differently. And this might take time.

And time is what Jesus consistently gave. Can we pause and listen to how members of our own parishes might have needs that we have forgotten or ignored? Can we imagine our buildings and classrooms as spaces inclusive of all needs, and not just those that are easy to meet?  Not all kids can tell you that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and not all kids can pray the Lord’s Prayer and not all kids can sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Some kids can move their eyes in time to that beat, though, and some kids can giggle or dance. Some kids can sign it. Some kids can stare at the picture of the warrior of light or listen to their mom sing hymn #207, and some kids can hear God in ways that are inaccessible to us, hidden behind a veil.

But we can never assume God isn’t speaking. We can never assume God is satisfied that some kids are not having a rich encounter with the risen Christ, week after week, just because their way of encounter is different.

My son speaks in hymns, in holding the icon of St. Michael, and in staring at that one page in the Jesus Storybook Bible. My son meets Jesus the Resurrected One in ways that are obvious and ways that are not, ways that are hidden and ways that, if we took the time to see them, would astonish us.

Our Sunday mornings should do the same.  


Hilary Yancey is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Baylor Univeristy and a Lilly Graduate Fellow. She recently published her first book, Forgiving God: A Story of Faith (Faithwords, 2018). 

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